Mitt Romney's Secret Debate Weapon: Zingers!

The Romney campaign keeps searching for an election-turning moment. They won't find one.

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With the first presidential debate coming on Wednesday, further details are emerging about how the two candidates have been preparing for the face-offs. The debates have a special importance for Mitt Romney, who trails President Obama by 4.3 points in both Real Clear Politics’s composite of national polls and their aggregation of polls in most swing states. Many politicos believe that the debates are Romney’s last chance to turn the race around. So what’s his secret weapon? Zingers.

This from Peter Baker and Ashley Parker in today’s New York Times:

Mr. Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August. His strategy includes luring the president into appearing smug or evasive about his responsibility for the economy.

This nicely illustrates one of the big problems that the Romney campaign has brought upon itself: They keep trying to find one magic moment on which they can turn around the race. They banked first on the vice presidential roll out and then on the GOP convention as instances where the American people would see and embrace a new Mitt Romney while finally turning on President Obama in the manner Republicans believe he deserves. That magic bullet instinct also explains the campaign’s jumping around from attack message to attack message (see: welfare attacks, “you didn’t build it,” “bumps in the road,” and so forth).

[ See editorial cartoons about Romney.]

But as I argue in my column in U.S. News Weekly this week ( subscription required), while we remember big moments in debates, they rarely if ever actually turn elections. The classic example is Gerald Ford’s declaration that the Soviet Union wasn’t dominating Eastern Europe—it’s remembered as a crippling gaffe, but he closed on Carter during the period of the debates that year. And while conventional wisdom (and, apparently, the Romney campaign) holds that Ronald Reagan only broke through after decisively besting Jimmy Carter with “there you go again” and “are you better off…?” in their late October debate, he was already leading in the polls at that point. It’s true that the polling trend line shows a Reagan surge after the debate, but he had been leading Carter since the late spring and had been creeping upward since late August. The Reagan-Carter debate accelerated an existing trend; it didn’t turn the election or change its dynamics.

[ Check out political cartoons about the 2012 presidential elections.]

And there’s another reason why the Romney campaign shouldn’t bank on zingers to turn around their flailing, failing effort. As The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison observes on Twitter today, “if people don't like a candidate to start with, they aren't going to be impressed when he uses one-liners and put-downs.” He goes on to wonder whether Team Romney realizes that candidates with high negatives (and Romney’s are so very high) shouldn’t be relying on zingers. People already find Romney unlikable, in other words; coming across as more of a smarmy smart-ass isn’t going to help him.

On a lighter note, the idea of Mitt Romney’s arsenal of prepared one-liners has given rise to a new Twitter meme: #MittZingers.